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Nelson Esparza’s bid for City Council: an enigma wrapped in a proxy war

Election 2018

Nelson Esparza’s bid for City Council: an enigma wrapped in a proxy war

Campaign 2018 could turn Nelson Esparza into Fresno’s newest political hero.

Or it could end up adding his name to the city’s long list of political nincompoops.

Esparza wants to succeed Clint Olivier as the city council member from District 7. Olivier, currently the council’s president, is termed out in January 2019.

The upcoming primary campaign figures to heat up after Thanksgiving and the Winter Holiday season. But Esparza got an early start on generating publicity.

The City Council on Oct. 19 gave its blessing to a settlement with Esparza involving campaign finances. The deal called for Esparza to pay a $500 civil penalty to the city and transfer about $5,000 in campaign funds back to an old campaign committee.

Esparza is currently a member of the Fresno County Board of Education. The dispute revolves around money he raised for his recent school board campaign.

The agreement states that the settlement document “is not intended to be and does not constitute an admission of any violations of the City of Fresno Charter and/or Municipal Code, or other civil or criminal wrongdoing by Esparza, or any other individual affiliated with his City Council campaign.”

Anyone out there think that disclaimer will deter opponents in the District 7 race from harping incessantly on Esparza’s decision-making skills?

At the same time, the future doesn’t always turn out the way we predict. As we relearned in the 2016 political season, conventional liabilities in the hands of a shrewd and talented candidate can turn into winning assets.

I caught up with Esparza on the afternoon of Oct. 20. We met on the patio of Sam’s Deli at the northwest corner of First Street and Clinton Avenue. Sam’s Deli is one of District 7’s treasures.

We were joined by local political consultant Jason Carns.

The settlement prohibits Esparza from publicly commenting on its contents. There was nothing to talk about except Esparza’s favorite topic: His District 7 candidacy.

District 7 is located in the center of Fresno. It’s the only council district that doesn’t touch the city’s boundary. District 7 has all of the challenges of a big city’s high-density neighborhoods.

“The most important thing that the City of Fresno needs, particularly District 7 and Central Fresno and parts of Southeast Fresno, is economic development,” Esparza said.

He noted that policy-making doesn’t happen in a vacuum. He said there are other issues – education, public health and infrastructure to name a few – that demand the attention of City Hall.

“But economic development is something that, for me as a policy wonk, encompasses all of these areas and gets to the bottom of the issues we have in this city,” Esparza said.

Lee Brand won the 2016 mayor’s race in part by touting his skills as a creator of jobs. I asked Esparza if it’s fair to say he would be a Brand ally on the council.

“It’s fair to say we’re going to have similar policy goals in terms of economic development,” Esparza said. “That comes in different forms, shapes and sizes – policy forms especially.”

Sacramento about six years ago killed local redevelopment agencies. RDAs with their tax-increment advantages were a favorite economic development tool among big cities with large swaths of poverty. Fresno City Hall loved its RDA.

Esparza said he will push hard to exploit two new development ideas coming out of Sacramento – enhanced infrastructure financing districts and community revitalization investments authorities.

“Looking around District 7, we have plenty of blight that needs to be addressed,” Esparza said. “These two tools will capitalize on work already being done at City Hall.”

Esparza talked about partnering with Fresno County to tackle multi-jurisdictional problems such as homelessness.

“There are some issues that the city can’t solve alone,” Esparza said. “We’ve got to look for partnerships where we can.”

I raised the idea of taxes as being the No. 1 issue in Campaign 2018.

“How’s that?” Esparza said.

In a nutshell, I said, the city’s improved finances combined with the city’s considerable needs – public safety, parks, infrastructure, transportation, etc. – may be setting the stage for a boost to the local sales tax to fund everything.

Council candidates in 2018 may have to tell voters how they feel about a possible ballot measure that might be named Measure R – as in Restoration.

How would Esparza in candidate forums handle the tax question?

“I make one promise to the people of District 7, the ones I’ve talked to and the ones I want to talk to: I promise to represent them,” Esparza said. “I think being in office and representing people is about being their voice, not imposing your voice on them. That’s the type of elected official I am and will continue to be. It’s really contingent on what is the attitude of the voters in District 7, the voters, the constituents. What do they want?”

Esparza said the annual budget is a reflection of the city’s values.

“If you have politicians who are taking their narrow personal views and that is what’s being reflected in our budget – that’s not right,” Esparza said. “The will of the people needs to be reflected in the budget.

“We need lots of cash for lots of different things in this city. How are we going to prioritize it? I have some ideas, but I’m one person out of 75,000-plus in this district. Specifically, my efforts will be for economic development in the City of Fresno. But make no mistake, I’m focused on District 7.”

We were nearing the end of our chat. I suggested that District 7 is like Berlin in 1961. It’s where high-stake political interests collide.

Fresno used to have six council districts. The mayor, elected in a citywide contest, was the seventh council vote. The city’s day-to-day operations were commanded by a city manager hired/fired by the council.

Fresno went to a strong mayor government in January 1997. The mayor became the city’s chief executive, head of a separate branch of government. The council needed a seventh member. A bit of each of the six existing districts was sliced away, then combined into District 7.

Henry R. Perea, Brand’s opponent in the hard-fought 2016 mayor’s race, was District 7’s first representative. Henry T. Perea succeeded his father. Olivier followed Henry T.

The council and the mayor’s office are non-partisan positions. That’s what it says on paper. In reality, City Hall politics, like politics throughout America, is a constant battle between left and right. Mayors Alan Autry, Ashley Swearengin and now Brand have tended toward the right through much of their careers. They all moved in speedy fashion to the center when in the Mayor’s Office.

We’re still waiting for our first strong mayor whose declared pre-campaign sentiments were to the left. But I’ve noticed that a fair number of left-leaning candidates, once seated on the council dais, move to the center, as well.

Fresno’s constantly evolving landscape has that effect on politicians who like to win elections.

That being said, it’s no secret at City Hall that folks on both the right and the left would like to see the new District 7 council member be someone who generally shares their worldview. We’re talking about the rise and fall of coalitions.

Might an outright Esparza victory in June, or in the November runoff, tip the council majority to the left? (For the record, District 1’s Esmeralda Soria and District 5’s Luis Chavez are up for re-election next year. District 3’s Oliver Baines is termed out.)

Should you win, I said to Esparza, “there’s a change in the power structure at City Hall. Yes or no?”

Esparza answered: “I think, in general, there are folks who like to romanticize the politics of the Fresno City Council. But when you boil down the reality, there are very few party line votes on the council. I think most of those folks up there on the dais are ultimately representing their districts. In the same way, I will represent my own district. As far as coalitions, I look forward to working with council members who have similar issues in their districts. The policies we pass will benefit their districts and District 7, as well.”

Henry R. Perea left City Hall in January 2003. He most recently was a member of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. Esparza, 27, is a former Perea intern.

“We talk,” Esparza said. “He supported me in my last campaign.”

Which brings us back to that City Council-Esparza deal of Oct. 19.

Campaign finance laws at City Hall are complex. Perhaps they should be. Fresno City Hall, after all, is one of the birthplaces of Operation Rezone.

The basic question of the Esparza situation was: Did Esparza violate city campaign finance laws by transferring money from his school board campaign account to a council campaign account during a no-transfer time period?

Esparza agreed to the settlement.

But the essence of what Esparza did – transferring money raised for a campaign now in the past to the account of a new campaign for a different office – isn’t unusual.

The moral, if not legal, legitimacy of this money maneuver came up during the Lee Brand-Henry R. Perea fight for mayor. Sources during the campaign more than once pitched to me that Brand had make such a transfer. They said Brand moved money from his council campaign account to his mayoral campaign account. They suggested there was something unsavory about the transfer. They suggested the voters needed to know.

I didn’t pursue the pitch.

The Brand camp has since told me that the transfer was fully vetted by the City Attorney’s Office before it occurred and found to be proper and within the rules.

There’s the difference, I was told. Esparza didn’t first seek City Attorney Doug Sloan’s advice before moving the money.

The bad blood from the Brand-Perea battle (Brand won, 51.2% to 48.5%) persists to this day. It’s fair to suggest the Esparza issue is a proxy for the continuation of that fight.

There was considerable talk (on background) by some city officials in October that Council Member Soria was Esparza’s chief ally during closed door debates on what to do about Esparza’s transfer of campaign money. I’m told Soria (who received strong support from the Pereas during her 2014 District 1 campaign) might have been Esparza’s only behind-the-scenes supporter.

It came as no surprise to City Hall insiders that Soria at the Nov. 2 council meeting planned to introduce an amendment to the municipal code that would have given new meaning to the definition of “fundraising period” for political campaigns.

In other words, Soria’s proposal might have given after-the-fact legitimacy to what Esparza did with the $5,000.

It also came as no surprise that Soria’s proposal, posted on the City Clerk’s website, never got a hearing in open session. Soria pulled it from the agenda at the start of the meeting. City Hall insiders said she didn’t have the votes.

But maybe the final word on Nelson Esparza’s great money transfer gambit of 2017 won’t come from voters on the Fresno City Council dais. Maybe the verdict will come from the voters of District 7.

I’m guessing campaign finance rules aren’t a barnburner issue among most Fresnans, especially when you’re talking about a measly $5,000. But I’ll also guess that Esparza’s District 7 opponents next year will use the Oct. 19 settlement in campaign literature to question Esparza’s integrity. More importantly, opponents may use the settlement to question Esparza’s political smarts.

If such criticism works, Esparza will go down in local political history as a doofus. He struck me in our only meeting so far as a bright, personable and dedicated young man. It would be painful for his supporters to realize Esparza stumbled badly early in his political career because he couldn’t find the city attorney’s phone number.

On the other hand, Esparza may respond to his opponents’ bile with a simple “bring it on!”

Esparza, per the settlement’s terms, wouldn’t be able to talk specifics on the campaign trail about his case. But he could talk about campaign finance rules in general and their effect on democracy. He might change the debate from his professional integrity to the integrity of a money system that, as some critics have claimed for decades, produces an elitist and entrenched power structure at City Hall.

That might resonate with a majority of voters in a district that, as Council President Olivier has said publicly many times, is the most challenged in all of Fresno.

I’m not saying such a criticism has merit. This is merely my speculation.

But I do know Esparza wouldn’t be the first American politician to launch a successful career by turning the tables on holier-than-thou opponents.

“We’ve got to win this race,” Esparza told me. “I very much look forward to representing the residents of District 7. The people of District 7 know me. They know they can count on me to tell them the truth.”

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver and advisor to The Collegian, the student newspaper of Fresno State.

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